With just two days left until the Community Food Co-operative of Utah's final delivery of food to its members, the sad truth behind its closure is a story familiar to any business: growth that couldn't be sustained. ---
Six years ago when the Co-op started, the field wasn't as crowded as it now is with local food producers. As part of Crossroads Urban Center, the Co-op provided cheap, high-quality food fresh from local farms, until an undisclosed operating deficit last year brought it to its knees.
Marketing director Leslie Proctor became one of the seven staff who now face an uncertain future six months ago, shortly after she was unemployed. She's been a participant in the scheme for many years, buying extra shares in the Co-op so she could put meat in her parents' freezer, as well as her own. "When I think about what I eat on a daily basis, on how much I depend on the Co-op, it's going to be a seismic shift," to live without it, she says.
What ended the Co-op's run was a sudden, dramatic inflation of membership two years ago that peaked at 3,000. "At that point, the decision was made to move to a warehouse and make capital purchases," Proctor says. Quite why there was this dramatic growth, Proctor says, the Co-op could never put its finger on. However, within six months, that 3,000 had corrected itself downwards by half.
While the Co-op employees fought valiantly to get the numbers back up with "lots of strategies," the monthly participants in the scheme never climbed above the core 1,600 number.
With the Crossroads' board forced to recognize that the Co-op, following the growth-driven investments of 2010, was generating extra costs and no longer viable as a self-sustaining operation, they closed it. "At the time, [the investment program] made sense," Proctor says.
So now, the Co-op is gearing up for closing down "in style and grace," Proctor says. On Feb.1 between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., there will be a "public celebration" with local vendors offering samplers and the Co-op honoring its 300 volunteers. Those volunteers helped by distributing the food shares out to 60 sites across seven counties, a key factor in keeping produce cost down and rendering the service so important to thousands of people like Proctor.
The celebration will take place at the Co-op's warehouse, 1726 S 700 West, Salt Lake City.